Hansen: Brian Kelly breaks a long-held promise to himself in chasing new dream at LSU

Eric Hansen
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — In the summer of 2017, when Brian Kelly’s future at Notre Dame hinged entirely on a stubborn dream and a new way to coax it toward reality, he fought.

Fought to move the timeline along for a much-needed new indoor facility. Fought for the complementary facility upgrades to theoretically follow shortly thereafter.

As Kelly’s run as Notre Dame head football coach ends, this should have been the cornerstone of his legacy. Getting Notre Dame to find a way to marry its traditions with the modern reality of doing business.

All in the name and deed of creating a realistic path to a national title in football, whether for him or the next guy that followed.

Maybe it still will.

And maybe the jagged left turn in his career path to become deposed Ed Orgeron’s successor at LSU will instead cannibalize that sentiment.

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Yahoo’s Pete Thamel on Monday night was the first to report Kelly’s hiring at LSU after 12 years and a school-record 113 wins at Notre Dame, 54 of which have come in the past five seasons after a philosophical makeover brought on by a 4-8 bottom line in 2016 that required a midseason vote of confidence just to keep that recruiting class from completely dissolving.

Kelly had already changed his Twitter avatar to LSU colors before meeting with the Notre Dame players for 11 minutes on campus Tuesday morning at 7.

Athletes exit the building after a football team meeting was held Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021 at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex in South Bend.

He was scheduled to arrive in Baton Rouge, La., later in the day, in roughly the same time frame that he was originally due in four-star wide receiver C.J. Williams’ California home to try to convince him to remain in what could have been Kelly’s best recruiting class.

Perhaps in his first LSU press conference — Wednesday at 1 p.m. EST — the 60-year-old Kelly can explain a move that flies in the face of everything he stood for, or at least voiced, during his time at Notre Dame.

Kelly so believed that he could eventually win a title in South Bend, if Notre Dame was willing to change, that he wasn’t afraid to piss people off. Important people. Wealthy and influential people, who had the egos and checkbooks to push back and Kelly didn’t yet have the equity of the current 54-9 run of the past five seasons.

That ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick has been a consistent co-conspirator in Kelly’s vision and his corresponding 113-40 record made Monday night’s Twitter storm turning into something substantive even more of an absurd possibility. 

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LSU’s interest in making the 12th-year Irish coach its splash hire was real. And apparently more authentic than Kelly’s belief that he was only a couple of missing pieces away from making a legit run at a national title where he was.

One was rescuing the fermenting blueprints for a promised Guglielmino Athletics Complex expansion and putting them into motion. The other was to cash in on the recruiting trail of ND’s two trips to the College Football Playoff the past three seasons, with a third trip this postseason still breathing.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick looks on as new Irish football coach Brian Kelly meets the media for the first time, back on Dec. 11, 2009.

Notre Dame (11-1), No. 6 in the CFP rankings going into Tuesday night’s reveal, finds out its postseason fate on Sunday.

The Irish players and fan base have a longer wait ahead with more angst and more at stake. Not to mention the recruits, whose three-day signing window opens Dec. 15.  

For the record Kelly’s current contract at ND ran through 2024. And for the record, Kelly just last Monday responded as follows as to whether he’d ever consider leaving Notre Dame of his own volition other than retirement.

"No,” he said. “(Pittsburgh Steelers head coach) Mike Tomlin had the best line, right? Unless that fairy godmother comes by with that $250 million check, my wife would want to take a look at it first. I'd have to run it by her.”

Contracts and promises can be broken. That’s nothing new. But in walking away now, Kelly broke a promise to himself, to hold onto the dream of winning a national title while working in South Bend.

Stubbornly. And fighting for it every chance he got.

Brian Kelly’s record at Notre Dame 

2010: 8-5, won Sun Bowl over Miami (Fla.), 33-17 

2011: 8-5, lost Champs Sports Bowl to Florida State, 18-14 

2012: 12-1, lost BCS National Championship game (in Miami) to Alabama , 42-14 

2013: 9-4, won Pinstripe Bowl (in New York) over Rutgers, 29-16 

2014: 8-5, won Music City Bowl (in Nashville) over LSU, 31-28 

2015: 10-3, lost Fiesta Bowl to Ohio State, 44-28 

2016: 4-8, no bowl game 

2017: 10-3, won Citrus Bowl (in Orlando, Fla.) over LSU, 21-17 

2018: 12-1, lost in CFP semifinal (Cotton Bowl) to Clemson, 30-3 

2019: 11-2, won Camping World Bowl (in Orlando, Fla.) over Iowa State, 33-9 

2020: 10-2, lost in CFP semifinal (Rose Bowl in Arlington, Texas) to Alabama, 31-14 

2021: 11-1, awaiting CFP or New Year’s Six bowl assignment.